Night of the rolling dead
'An elderly woman steps out of the car, and just from the worried look on her face, I can tell that she has a problem ...'
Editor's note: We're pleased to present an excerpt from Houston area firefighter Will Wyatt's first book, "And a Paycheck, Too." In the book, Will shares some of the incidents he's encountered over the years – including the following strange case…
By Firefighter/author Will Wyatt
And a Paycheck, Too
We deal with death so much in the emergency services that sometimes it becomes commonplace and, in a weird way, even humorous. I always try to remember that this is a significant event in a person's life, even if it is just another day at work for me.
I was driving the medic unit at the Village one hot summer night. The paramedic in charge was Mr. Sean O'Limerick, a real character. Around ten o'clock, we took a homeless person to a hospital on the southwest side of town. If memory serves, he had been hit by a vehicle near or on a freeway.
We unloaded our new friend into a hallway bed. A lot of hospitals now are so crowded that they put beds in the hallways for the overflow. Forget about the privacy of throwing up in a room—you get to do it in the hallway for all passersby to behold.
I rolled the stretcher outside to the ambulance dock to get the unit ready for the next contestant. Sean adjourned to the paramedic room to write his report. There were several ambulances at the dock, but the other crews were all inside the hospital. I was alone on the dock.
As I was placing a new bed sheet on the stretcher, I noticed a large car pull up nearby. It was one of the old Cadillac models or maybe an Oldsmobile; the term "land yacht" came to mind. It was the kind of car that most elderly folks are fond of. You almost feel compelled to go over and cast off a rope to the car to secure it to the dock.
An elderly woman steps out of the car, and just from the worried look on her face, I can tell that she has a problem. I am guessing she is about 70 years old. She looks around and appears very upset. Finally, we make eye contact. She looks at the side of the ambulance and then back at me. I guess the words Emergency Medical Service give her hope, so she totters over to me.
"Hello," she says. "I need some help with my mother."
"Your mother?" I ask, incredulous. This woman must have served hot chocolate to the troops at Valley Forge. She answers in the affirmative and continues.
"Mom started having trouble breathing," she says, "so I got her in the car and drove right down." Amazing. All of the ridiculous ambulance runs we make for no good reason, and here is a legitimate emergency with no thought given to an ambulance.
This is a pretty common occurrence. I have helped countless people into the hospital from private vehicles. Some people are just dropped off because the transporters don't want to be nearby when the police to catch wind of the reason for this particular hospital visit. Others just have enough grit and gumption to take care of their own problems.
I assure my new elderly acquaintance that all will be well and compliment her on doing the right thing by seeking medical help for Mom. I stroll over to the front seat of the ambulance to retrieve some gloves. I notice that Sean has left his radio in the charger, so I have no way to call him. Oh well, this can't be too bad. As I pass by the daughter, she sobs that "Mom may be gone." Oh grand. I am, of course, formulating a plan in my head for what to do if this is really bad. The only thing I can do is run and call for help, really.
"Can Mom walk?" I ask the daughter.
"Oh yes," she says," she walked to the car!" Hmm, OK.
I open the passenger door and take my first look at Mom. I look over my shoulder at the daughter.
"No . . . she is not going to walk," I say. This poor woman is dead. She is cold to the touch, stiff, and has a painful look frozen on her face. She is wearing a diaper and a hospital top. She has nothing on below the diaper. She strikes me as someone who has been in a hospital bed for years.
I replay the words of the daughter in my mind. She put her in the car and drove right down . . . from where? Bangor, Maine? I look at the daughter, who gives me this hell-I-don't-know shrug. Now what to do? I can't pronounce somebody dead at a hospital. I decide that the best course of action is to take her inside and let the hospital handle it.
I have already looked around and seen that there aren't any wheelchairs. I reach into the Cadillac boat and lift her legs outside the car and onto the ground so I can pick her up. She is so stiff her legs stay in a sitting position and she rocks backwards into the car seat with her legs in the air. Oh, dear God! I look at the daughter, who is crying now. Finally, I pick her up and head inside the hospital.
"I'm think I'm going to go park the car," the daughter says.
"Uh no," I say, not wanting to wait for the riverboat pilot and tugboat. "You are going with me. Forget the car." Into the hospital we go.
Naturally, there are no nurses at the triage desk. I step into the waiting room and a hundred people go 'ohhhh, yech!' in unison. Mothers cover children's eyes. I quickly start down the hallway of the emergency department. I see a woman in blue scrubs, and I ask her for help. She refuses, saying that she is just a lab tech.
Finally, Sean emerges from a room. His face twists into a look of horror when he sees me. I later found out that he assumed I had "borrowed" this person from the morgue and was taking her back to the station to be planted in the chief's room. Nice to know that he holds me to such high moral standards.
He points at the woman. "Put her back! Right now!" he says, shaking the finger at me. I protest and explain that she just drove up at the ambulance dock. Sean, feeling her cold, stiff arms, says, "This woman didn't just do anything."
"Sean, shut up and find me a room for this woman," I say. "This is her daughter, and they just drove up outside." The daughter, who is standing behind me, smiles at Sean and gives a shy wave. Sean helps me find a room and we get the poor woman onto a bed.
A nurse happens by, and we explain the situation. She deems it necessary to activate the "panic button." Code Blue, stat, etcetera. People are coming from everywhere now, sliding down poles, bursting out of trap doors in walls. Crash carts, x-ray machines, and lab people crowd around the bed in a matter of seconds. Of course, the crowd of medical professionals are stopped their tracks when they view the patient.
The attending doctor comes in and pushes his way to the bedside. He looks at our person of interest, takes her hand, and moves it around.
"How did this person get in here?" he demands. I clear my throat, causing him to look at me, and I meekly wave. "Did you bring this person from her house like this?" he roars.
"Uh, no, sir," I respond, "she pulled up outside at the ambulance dock." You would have thought that I would have learned to choose my words more carefully after my exchange with Sean.
"Son, this woman did not just drive a car," the doctor fires back. "This woman is dead!"
I did my head to acknowledge this point and direct the good doctor with my eyes to the daughter, who is standing next to me. The doctor immediately goes into a different mode.
"Oh, ma'am. I am Dr. Smith (or whatever it was); I am the attending physician tonight. Let me assure you everything that is humanly possible is being done for this lady. Why don't' you wait in the waiting room and a nurse will be with you shortly to get some information. We are going to begin life-saving measures and run some tests."
A nurse leads the daughter out of the room as Sean and I head for the door. We got back in the ambulance and just looked at each other. Of course, when we get back to the station we have to share the whole story with everyone still awake.
The death of another loved one in another stranger's life. And, of course, there we were. I don't know what the situation was; I never check up on people we have helped. I don't know if this woman had do-not-resuscitate orders or not. I don't know what quality of life she had or didn't have.
The daughter may have put her in the car and just driven around until she stopped breathing and then drove a while longer. I'm not totally convinced she walked to the car at all. Who knows? It's not for me to condemn or accuse, just to help.